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Saving the ranch: next NMSU College of Arts and Sciences colloquium topic

Imagine earning money while ensuring your land is not subdivided.

Jack Wright, head, NMSU Department of Geography (NMSU photo by Ben La Marca)

ssible through the donation of subdivision rights on a piece of private property, said Jack Wright, head of the New Mexico State University Department of Geography.

Wright will discuss these donations at the next Arts and Sciences colloquium, "Saving the Ranch: Conservation Easements in New Mexico," beginning at 3:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 18, in Room 107 of the NMSU Science Hall.

In addition to ensuring the land stays as it is, the landowner also is entitled to federal and state income tax deductions, estate tax deductions and state tax credits.

"If I own a piece of land worth $2 million and I donate a conservation easement, that may reduce the value of the land on paper by 50 percent," Wright said. "The million dollars that I give away to a nonprofit organization like the Nature Conservancy or the New Mexico Land Conservancy is a tax-deductible gift. Also, the estate's value on paper will be reduced so it can be passed on to the heirs with no taxes due."

Wright, who has worked on conservation easements for the past 29 years, completing more than 110 of them from Montana to New Mexico, said Buford Harris' sale of 142 acres of land along the Rio Grande constituted the first conservation easement in the Mesilla Valley.

Another example is the 31,000-acre Montosa ranch, west of Magdalena. Seven building sites on the ranch will be sold to horse owners. The houses are situated in such a way that the residents of one house cannot see the other houses. With the exception of the seven building sites, everything else is open terrain on which the people can ride their horses.

The growth of conservation easements, which started in Boston in 1890, has exploded, Wright said. Now, more than 1,500 local and regional land trusts throughout the U.S. conserve 800,000 acres per year. To put this in perspective, Yellowstone National Park covers 2 million acres. Since their inception, local and regional land trusts have conserved 9 million acres while national groups have saved more than 25 million acres. As the word gets out about the many advantages of conservation easements, Wright sees unlimited growth potential to the idea.

"When we started doing this 30 years ago in Montana, people would ask, 'What is a conservation easement? I'm against it.' They simply did not know what they were, so they would oppose them. Now, conservation easements are mainstream. Every lawyer, accountant or land appraiser knows about them. One group, the Montana Land Alliance, shows the potential for the growth of easements. This group currently holds easements on more than 600,000 acres of ranches in Montana. Conservation easements are philosophically attractive because they respect private property rights, whether you're conservative or liberal."
With Anthony Anella, an Albuquerque architect, Wright wrote "Saving the Ranch: Conservation Easement Design in the American West." The book, published in 2004 by Island Press, describes options that farmers, ranchers and others have as they explore how to achieve their financial and personal goals through the usage of their land. Unlike other books that may have a certain "spin" to them, Wright says "Saving the Ranch" is straightforward.

"In our book, we simply say, 'Here are the facts and here are your options. Here's what you gain and what you lose with each thing you do. If you do nothing, Uncle Sam is looming with the state taxes. If you do nothing, your children may subdivide your land. Is that what you want to happen?' Our point is not to limit agriculture, but rather to encourage maintenance of good stewardship through agriculture."

The colloquia series will conclude with "Mexican Descent Youth at the Crossroads of Sameness and Difference: A Mosaic of Youth Cultures and Border Identity," presented by Cynthia Bejarano, NMSU professor of criminal justice, at 3:30 p.m., April 25, in Room 107 of the Science Hall.